The Bald Sparrow by Vi Khi Nao

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With one hand, the professor cradles his penis like a fat old man carrying a sparrow up a mountain. He holds it gently but firmly, without risk of suffocation, while he talks to his student about her latest story, in which she wrote about a confused daughter who accidentally suffocates her mother to death in New Guinea. The professor’s oxford shirt is draped over his legs and the desk between him and the student block her from seeing what he is doing. An eye peeps through the keyhole, another student’s, as it happens, the best writer in the program, and even he cannot see what the professor is up to. 

“So, how are you going to make it more feasible for the daughter to ‘accidentally’ suffocate her mother?”

The professor emphasizes the word “accidentally” by rotating his jaw to the far left of his cheekbone and then counter-rotating it to the far right before licking his parched lips. It’s very early in the afternoon. Though his back is to the window, the skin of his lips has become desiccated, giving the illusion that his mouth is a baked potato sliced in half, self-peeling without him knowing. He smacks his lips as the student responds. The sound of his smacking eats one and a quarter words from the student’s mouth.

“Ughter is fat!”

The professor leans forward.

“What did you say?”

“I said ‘The daughter is fat!’”

“And…?”

The professor leans further forward.

“She sat on her mother.”

“And you expect the reader to believe that an adult can sit on another adult as an act of murder?”

“Yes. Especially since the mother is very thin, a strip of noodle, and the daughter is very fat like the national park.”

He leans back in his chair.

“You can be a thief of reality all you want, as long as you get away with it. As your teacher of sound narrative and gatekeeper of logic, I see you robbing reality and I am stopping you from robbing it.”

“How?”

“How what?”

“How are you going to stop me?”

“By asking you to revise. By giving you a poor grade.”

The professor, whose makeshift-paperweight elbow pins the manuscript solidly to the desk, is startled when in one swift maneuver the student pulls the manuscript from beneath his arm and shoves it into her fake-Gucci backpack. 

“I’m not finished grading it yet,” the professor raises his voice and crushes his sparrow. He has been so good at being gentle with it, petting it as he ascends the mountain of his student’s logical home.

“You are now.”

If his hand were not inside his pants, cradling his artificially enlarged and modified sparrow, he would have demanded her manuscript back through physical exertion—though, more accurately, his preferred noun is “force.” Through sheer force. He imagines climbing on top of his desk, his pants kissing the wood, while he commands her to walk towards him and turn around. In the pornographic world, he would command her to drop her skirt and her cherry red underpants and bend over while he fucks her in the ass. In his substandard office, he imagines taking his sparrow and placing it first on her right shoulder and then over her head and down onto her left shoulder. As if his sparrow were a sword and he was turning his student into a knight, not a writer. A knight of his own desire. He opens his mouth like Madonna and sings “Like A Virgin.”

Over truffles and tortellini once, his knees had bumped lightly against hers. He kept them there, not breathing, not moving out of fear of losing the connection. They were in a bar; she was visiting the department, not yet a student. In the light, he could see how beautiful she was. Her long black Nordic hair swung back and forth like the pendulum of a Wildon Home grandfather clock. He had ached to pull her hair over, either to stop the swing of time or to forward it to a time when he could lean over and kiss her and make her blush. Soon enough, he would be her teacher and thesis advisor. They would sip Mariage Frères while chewing on a madeleine and talking about Marcel Proust. 

She was a strong writer. She frequently wrote about cephalopod mollusks that could grant wishes by squirting ink. In one story, she wrote, “If you spread your leg, the octopus suggests, I will inseminate you with black desire and the next time you pee, you will pee out your future.” She would write about prophecies from the point of view of an eggplant. He would be absurd, ask her to make her realism more realistic. He would encourage frequent visits, but she would only meet him the minimum required amount: three times per semester. He keeps lurching for her longcase, but it keeps swinging out of reach.

She is a talented writer, but the school has many talented writers. The professor is quite aware of this. His longcase student hasn’t been performing at her best. She has been drifting in and out of depression from her terrible marriage with her Flying Spaghetti Monster husband, and her ability to perform has decreased drastically. But when the time comes for the university’s annual writing competition, she too submits. The Seiichi Morimura Prize, named after the Japanese mystery writer born in Kumagaya, carries an award of ten thousand dollars. Morimura donated to the university part of his earnings for his successful and controversial work, The Devil’s Gluttony.

The professor reads the submissions with his hand cradling his sparrow and when he reaches hers, he masturbates profusely, rubbing his sparrow’s feathers until it is nearly bald. Like her one-legged octopus, he squirts his ink onto the first page of her manuscript and makes all the characters’ dreams come true. He resurrects the spaghetti-thin mother from the grave her daughter gave her. The process makes him feel empowered, like a superhero saving imaginary characters from their tragic fates. He selects her work blindly, above all others. He speaks to the other professors, raving about her extraordinary talent and her amazing matricidal story.

On a Wednesday he comes bursting into the main office to see the result of the competition. The best writer in the program is standing by the coffee maker, pouring himself another cup of coffee.

“Professor Humblebee! Would you like a cup of coffee?”

The professor ignores the student. Noticing a manila envelope sitting near the mailbox, he bends his body over the locked swinging door of the main office to reach for it. But he is one index-finger-length short. The secretary, Helen, sits with her nose glued to the typewriter. 

“Hey Helen, would you pass me the result?”

Standing up, she gives him the envelope, “You are in early!” 

He ignores Helen too and pulls the paper out of the envelope, like pulling hair from a skull, smiles, then shoves the paper back in. He whistles. The student with the cup of coffee has been observing all of this. He too had entered the competition.

His story wasn’t one of matricide. He wrote, instead, about a black soldier from the Civil War era who devoted his remaining amputated days to writing about his experience in the war. He had collected the teeth of deceased soldiers and chiseled them down so he could turn them into braille for his blind sweetheart. He narrated beautifully, the experience of her running her hands through the calcified manuscript, sensing the ghosts of the war and the memories of the soldiers passing through the tips of her fingers. She could feel the materiality of their war efforts. The story concluded with his visually impaired lover asking him to pull out one of her wisdom teeth and use it to compose the last footnote of his autobiographical account of the war. When she died, he pulled out the rest of her teeth and wrote her an epithet in braille and mounted it on her headstone. He knew he was writing at its height and he had worked hard, day and night, for that prize. He knew from Humblebee’s smile that he had no chance.

A few months ago, Daphne had come in secret to his one-bedroom apartment on top of a hill, sobbing to him that Humblebee had attempted to kiss her. She had dodged his parched lips. She said she had been afraid to come to the program because she had a bad feeling something like this would happen. He didn’t know what to say to her. From the prize earnings he had received from a Hemingway Award, he ordered this Nordic girl mee katang, amok trey, a large bowl of kuy teav, num banh chok, kdam chha mrich kchei, chruok svay, samlar kair, pleah sach ko, and ansom chek from the Cambodian restaurant down the street. He couldn’t understand how she could eat all of that food in one sitting and still remain who she was. Tall and beautiful. Not like him. He has the slowest metabolism in the world.

He had been fat all his life, but he wrote well and it compensated for his lack of Ryan Gosling looks. When he saw Professor Humblebee from the corner of his eye as he poured the blackest coffee into a cup, he understood. He was an astute observer and he could see through Humblebee’s academic lust, could see that even if he had written like James Joyce or William Faulkner at their height, he wouldn’t have had a chance.

Daphne slowly drifted out of his life. At a bakery once, he saw her sitting across from a young man with a big beer belly and a massive mustache an inch longer than Dali’s. He didn’t think she saw him, and quietly he tucked away three almond biscotti and one large chocolate chip cookie inside the pockets of his gray hoodie.

A few summers after graduation: he is walking with a pencil and a small notepad in his pocket on a flat, dry field toward a mulberry tree. Three or four yards from him a cairn, a beautiful sculpture shaped like a round pyramid, sits handsomely in the sun. He thinks he sees a Sudan golden sparrow, but closer inspection shows that the golden light of the afternoon is playing a trick on him. It is just a house sparrow and like most sparrows, it has fallen in love with the dust. Dust bathing is the most common hobby that sparrows engage in. Here, the young passerine dips its beak down, tail in the air, while digging a hole with its feet. As soon as it has completed its plowing task, the bird lies down in the hole and flaps its wings. Hunter immediately walks away from the gravedigger and towards the cairn. He removes one average-sized stone, the size of a human palm, and walks back to the hole. The light that is reflecting on his back has the same golden tone as the light that fell on the professor’s back the afternoon he critiqued Daphne’s paper. Hunter bends his knees so when the base of this foot stretches and arches like his leather sandal, he is prostrating before the bird, the tip of the pencil digging into his thigh, giving him a small pain that could be compared to pleasure. He holds the stone in his right hand, gripping its side with all five of his fingers. He holds the stone probably not in the same way that Agave held her son Pentheus’s impaled head before presenting it to Cadmus. And in one swift move he collapses the shadow created by the stone lifting, and gives the sparrow’s bird-made, dirt-designed burial chamber the lid it deserves.

 

“The Bald Sparrow” by Vi Khi Nao, from A Brief Alphabet of Torture: Stories, copyright © 2017 by Vi Khi Nao. Used by permission of The University of Alabama Press, publisher of FC2 books.

Vi Khi Nao was born in Long Khanh, Vietnam. She is the author, most recently, Umbilical Hospital, and of the forthcoming story collection, A Brief Alphabet of Torture which won FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize in 2016, the novel, Fish in Exile (Coffee House Press, 2016), and the poetry collection, The Old Philosopher, which won the Nightboat Books Prize for Poetry in 2014. She holds an MFA in fiction from Brown University, where she received the John Hawkes and Feldman Prizes in fiction and the Kim Ann Arstark Memorial Award in poetry.

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